Workers’ compensation statutes were designed to compensate those who sustained injuries while working within the line and scope of their employment. Given the number of workers who are injured on the job each year, it is likely that a majority of us will either sustain an on-the-job injury, or we know someone who will. Despite the common occurrence of on-the-job injuries, it still amazes me that the vast majority of those injured employees are unfamiliar with what their rights are under the statutes. Once briefed on what benefits they are entitled to, injured workers are surprised to learn that workers’ compensation benefits are not intended to make the worker whole. These statutes were obviously written with the employers’ interests outweighing the interests of the injured employees.
Although workers’ compensation statutes are adopted by each individual state, they are basically similar with respect to benefits available to injured employees. Medical benefits are provided to the injured employee for life; however, the insurer controls, for the most part, where and under what circumstances the medical care is provided. While the employee is out of work due to their injury, they are only paid 2/3 of what they were making before their injury. Compensation for permanent injuries are capped at 300 weeks unless the employee is totally and permanently disabled. Employees who cannot return to gainful employment may receive benefits beyond 300 weeks. Whether temporarily or permanently injured, workers’ compensation does not compensate the injured employee for past/future pain and suffering, no matter how severe or how long the pain and suffering endures. Workers’ compensation also does not compensate the injured employee for past/future mental and emotional distress, loss of enjoyment of life, and, as stated earlier, the injured employee is not fully compensated for their loss of income. Furthermore, punitive damages are not available regardless of how wanton or egregious the conduct was that led to the injury. All of the damages not recoverable under workers’ compensation are recoverable under theories of product liability and negligence. Finally, under workers’ compensation laws, the injured employee can only sue his employer for workers’ compensation benefits. Any other claims against the employer will be immediately dismissed.
Given the notable shortcomings of workers’ compensation benefits, it is extremely important to evaluate on-the-job injury claims to determine if a third party claim exists against some other party. Commonly, injured employees are mangled or killed by defective machinery. In these cases, a third party claim can be filed against the designer, manufacturer, seller and/or the assembler of the machinery. In addition to defective machinery, employees can sustain injuries on the job due to the negligence of a third party. For example, we handled a case for a client who was severely burned when an explosion occurred at an oil refinery. In addition to his workers’ compensation benefits, we pursued claims against the parties who negligently performed repair work at the oil facility that caused the explosion. The importance of examining third party claims when examining workers’ compensation claims is extremely important to the client. All common law damages, past/future pain and suffering, past/future mental anguish, loss of enjoyment, lost income and punitive damages are recoverable. Additionally, spouses of injured employees can file loss of services or consortium claims. This, of course, is not possible under workers’ compensation.
When employees are injured on the job their lawyer should examine the facts and circumstances to determine if third party claims are viable. This analysis could very well mean the difference between partial and full compensation for their client. If you would like additional information on this subject contact Kendall Dunson at 800-898-2034 or by email at Kendall.Dunson@beasleyallen.com.
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